Miami Book Fair 2013's Best Writers
Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
Portrait by Michael Lionstar
How many books could you read in 30 years? Five hundred? Three thousand? Could you break into the six figures?
No matter your estimate, Miami Book Fair International likely has you beat. In its three-decade run, MBFI has featured about 7,500 authors promoting countless books — and that's just in its presentations. Its annual street fair invites book vendors from around the world to set up shop on the streets surrounding Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus, turning downtown Miami into the nation's temporary literary epicenter.
The festival's history is peppered with appearances by the literary world's top names, including Allen Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson, Isabel Allende, and Alice Walker. And the impressive lineup hasn't changed now that the fair has entered its dirty 30s. The festivities began early this year, with a series of author appearances including Salman Rushdie, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, and poet Billy Collins that launched in September. International bestselling author Dan Brown kicked off the official festival last Sunday, hosting an evening devoted to his latest novel, Inferno. And by the time political commentator Chris Matthews closes the festival this Sunday, Miami lit lovers will have seen a diverse and impressive mix of talent, from Pulitzer-winning author Lawrence Wright, to feminist novelist Erica Jong, to actor and new memoirist Anjelica Huston, to Olympic figure skater turned cookbook author Brian Boitano. Oh yeah, and a former vice president who once shot a hunting buddy is coming our way too.
From the big names to under-the-radar authors, we spoke with five of this weekend's book fair presenters.
For most MBFI authors, Miami is merely a tropical pit stop on a long and grinding book tour. But for Karen Russell, it's home. And in the past seven years, no one has done more to bring Miami's macabre beauty to national prominence than she.
In February, the 32-year-old Coral Gables Senior High graduate published her third book, a collection of eerie and often downright terrifying short stories called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. And although it's not set in South Florida like Russell's much-acclaimed novel Swamplandia, it nonetheless explores very Miami motifs, such as the thin line between myth and reality, the human capacity for evil, and even the murderous potential of American football fanaticism.
"For a lot of these new stories, I kind of consciously thought it would be good to leave the state for a little bit, just as a challenge to myself," Russell says. "If I let myself, all my stuff would be moon-eyed 13-year-olds paddling around canals in Miami."
Instead, Vampires opens with a pair of bloodsuckers trying to satiate their thirst by burying their fangs not in humans but in the sweet lemons of Sorrento. As in Swamplandia and Russell's first short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, however, the supernatural is just a vehicle to explore our own foibles and failings. Freed from worrying about death, Russell's vampires find that immortality just creates more time for solitude and heartbreak. In another story, an invasion of giant seagulls becomes an opportunity for the teenage protagonist to lose his virginity.
The book fair itself has special meaning for Russell. "It was my favorite thing," she says. "It was like a kid bender. I would get bombed on a big-ass soda and eat like nine Chicken McNuggets, which I never did because I was a tiny girl, and I'd buy a million books. And I remember we'd take the Metromover for no reason... That was like heaven."
Sounds like a plan, Karen. We'll bring the books. You bring the big-ass soda. (With Karen Shepard and Laura Van den Berg on Sunday, November 24, at 11 a.m. in Building 8, second floor, room 8201. Admission is free.) Michael E. Miller
Daniel Alarcón, a Peruvian-American novelist who was recently named on the New Yorker's prestigious "20 Under 40" list, represents a country not particularly well represented in Miami, aside from the odd (and usually inauthentic) ceviche shop. But Alarcón's latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, will resonate with everyone in this city of emigrants and exiles. It is the story of two brothers, one born in the U.S. and the other in an unnamed South American country. "That's one of the issues that is important in the novel: that relationship between two brothers, one of whom has the option of coming and going as he pleases — and he chooses to go to the United States — and the other one who feels kind of stuck," Alarcón says. "It was important for me to dramatize that relationship and use it almost as a thought experiment: How would that affect the relationship between two brothers, if one of them had the keys to the kingdom and the other one didn't?"
If the relationship between the brothers speaks to the arbitrariness of American immigration policy, Alarcón's description of South America screams painful truths about the high price the continent has paid for its current economic boom: Nelson, a young actor, is stranded by war and circumstance in his native country.
"There is an ambiguity there because on the one hand you think, It's great that the war is over; it's great that there aren't car bombs every night and people are less afraid," Alarcón says. "And it's completely natural and in human nature to take that lack of imminent fear and celebrate it and be frivolous for a while."
But Alarcón worries that evils both past and present are being ignored in the name of prosperity. "It's ridiculous to talk about 7 or 8 percent growth [in Peru] and not talk about how much of that is actually illicit money that is being laundered, you know?" he says.
In that sense, Alarcón's novel is a warning — not only about Peru but also about places such as Miami, where gentrification is wiping out entire neighborhoods overnight. "The good times are [not only] a salve for the bad times but an erasure of the bad times and an erasure of history," he says. "That's what I'm worried about." (With NoViolet Bulaway and Ru Freeman on Saturday, November 23, at 12:30 p.m. in Building 8, third floor, room 8303. Admission is free.) Michael E. Miller
It's hard out there for a poet. Even for exceptionally talented writers of verse, it's rare to break into the realm of household names or bestselling books. There are only two paths to fame for poets: a U.S. poet laureateship or a gig reading at a presidential inauguration.
For Richard Blanco, it was the latter.
The Miami-raised, FIU-educated poet was tapped by President Obama to read at his inauguration in January, making Blanco the first immigrant and first Hispanic poet to have the honor. His poem "One Today" shared the White House stage with Beyoncé. To Blanco, the moment was both surreal and humbling.
"In your head, you think you're going to come down the steps and be announced, like 'The Poet!' " he says with a smile, recalling the reality: being shuttled from one media appearance to another in a congested and largely shut-down Washington, D.C. "I thought I was going to [read] and then just sit at the ball all night."
But he's not complaining. "I can't say that I don't love the attention. It's like any art, especially with poetry — for most of your life, you're recognized with your peers and there's a sense of connection in many ways that are very genuine and very powerful. But never at this scale."
Blanco is making the most of his newfound notoriety, bringing both Looking for the Gulf Motel, his latest collection of poems, as well as For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, a poetic memoir about his experience as inaugural poet, to Miami Book Fair this year. He also helped Bostonians recover after the Boston Marathon bombing in April by reading his poem "Boston Strong" at a benefit concert and selling it in chapbook form, both to benefit the One Fund Boston.
"I'm just taking it all in and trying to see how I can turn this into some other element that does a greater good for a greater number of people," he says. (With Robert Pinsky and Campbell McGrath on Saturday, November 23, at 11:30 a.m. in the auditorium, Building 1, second floor, room 1261. Admission is free.) Ciara LaVelle
David Foster Wallace probably visited Florida for only one reason: to write his classic essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." According to biographer D.T. Max, Wallace wouldn't have cared for Central Florida tourist traps, the heartland's Middle American values, or Miami's superficiality.
"He had a writer's anxiety around pleasure," says Max, whose original New Yorker article about Wallace eventually grew into the Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. "It wouldn't strike me as the first place he'd go if he were to have a vacation."
The notoriously private and agoraphobic Wallace railed against mind-numbing pleasures during his lifetime. The danger of overindulgence was one of the television, alcohol, and marijuana addict's great themes. Wallace wrote "Fun Thing" freshly sober, which meant he was forced to deal with what Max calls his "whirring mind" completely unadulterated. The essay, detailing his week aboard a luxury cruise ship departing from Fort Lauderdale, is characterized by an overwhelming sense of dread.
Wallace was less of a reporter and more of a self-described "giant eyeball" in the piece, which ended up being a meandering, dread-filled account of his time on board. But Max says Wallace's hatred of cruise ship culture wouldn't have necessarily extended to all of Florida.
"I think he would have found Miami Beach interesting in sort of its earlier incarnations and probably highly toxic in its current one," Max adds. "It's the kind of Miami Beach that gets on the cover of Interview magazine [that] would have been anxiety-provoking for him."
It's true that Wallace despised vanity, even though he spent much of his life as a womanizer who craved affirmation. But before depression led him to take his own life in 2008, he converted to a state of mindfulness and authenticity that Max finds beautiful and more important to chronicle than Wallace's works themselves.
"Who else begins their life as — by his own description — a kind of shallow, star-fucking muse and has this conversion but doesn't miraculously wind up converted to religion itself?" he says. "So many people have kind of gotten into this sort of humanistic triumph through David, and that strikes me as a very important thing to write about." (With Stanley Crouch, Elizabeth Winder, and Greg Bellow on Saturday, November 23, at 1 p.m. in Building 7, first floor, room 7128. Admission is free.) Allie Conti
British author Geoff Dyer counts his latest book, Zona, as one of his "great successful moments." But Dyer isn't exactly commenting on the book itself — rather more on the fact that it got into print in the first place.
In a book-length meditation on Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker, Dyer has written, as Zona's tangled subtitle suggests, "about a film about a journey to a room." Not really straight criticism, the experience is a shot-by-shot rundown of the film by a narrator given to mental jazz soloing.
"A book like that is so at odds with everything we're told about what makes a book viable or marketable," Dyer says.
Really, that could be said about a number of the author's titles. While the careers of other writers have followed traditional courses or at least stayed confined to one section of the library, Dyer is reliably all over the map. He mixes fiction with criticism, history with digression, reviews with memoir. Just check out But Beautiful, a book of short poetic meditations on the lives of jazz musicians, or Out of Sheer Rage, his account of trying to write a book about D.H. Lawrence. Both are stone-cold classics, not least because they're completely new takes on tackling nonfiction subjects.
Zona was brewed from a different mix. Dyer was under contract with publishers in the States and the UK to pen a book about tennis. "I began summarizing this film just as a displacement activity to bunk off from doing what I was meant to be doing," he explains. "It was really great fun, but right from the start it seemed absolutely certain this would be unpublishable even if I had enough words."
To the author's surprise, both publishing houses were eager for the book.
Next year will represent another unique publishing event for Dyer. For the first time in the United States, Graywolf Press will publish the author's first two novels, The Colour of Memory and The Search, which first hit the shelves in 1989 and 1993. "It's a weird form of being published posthumously and being around to enjoy it," Dyer says. (In conversation with Miami Rail editor Hunter Braithwaite on Saturday, November 24, at 11 a.m. in Building 8, second floor, room 8203-B. Admission is free.) Kyle Swenson
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